Architecture is consumed at walking pace, but nowadays architecture criticism takes place at the speed of light. First impressions can be an important part of building a picture of a building when approach it on foot or in car, but when a digital image of a proposed building flashes over the fibre-optics and plops into one’s inbox, or Twitter feed, first impressions are about all you get. Zap, there it is, all buffed and ready, showing what is presumably its best side, with no intriguing glimpses over rooftops of approaches over lawns. “Hmm,” one says, or sometimes “Wow!”, and depressingly often “Eww”. And that’s all you get – you don’t proceed to consume the building, to explore it, you’re already done, the image is burned onto your mind like the floating blob left in the eyes by a camera flash. There’s some text, but that mostly is just an attempt to serve up a selection of adjectives that you might want to use in your story: “Vibrant”, “exciting”, “dynamic”, and of course “iconic”.
When I opened the emailed press release containing an image – that is, one (1) image – of the Anish Kapoor’s design for the ArcelorMittal Orbit, my immediate reaction was “fucking hell”. Instant and powerful dislike, coupled with instant horror: not a bad reaction to a work of art, but much less desirable in a structure that I think will be visible from my bedroom. The first visual impression I got was of a fountain of gore, the flying sanguinous strings that accompany the chestburster’s emergence from John Hurt, or the various hideous transformations of John Carpenter’s The Thing. This was accompanied by a strong reminder of the bonus buildings from Simcity 2000, which were a little too cartoony, bright and unrealistic. So I joined the chorus of disapproval on Twitter, where people were being most entertaining in their denigration. A number of blog posts have been composed attacking the design, from Hugh Pearman’s fairly thoughtful assessment to (Icon’s own) Douglas Murphy’s cri de couer.
There is of course something disreputable about this instantaneous critical consensus – seeing a render and popping over the Twitter to trade witticisms about it with one’s peers. (It is, however, no less reputable an activity than its tedious sister, contrarianism.) I rolled my eyes somewhat when it was the American Embassy getting Twitter-savaged, and the pleasure I derived from watching the Space Tangle getting a virtual kicking yesterday seems somehow unclean.
One of the things I like about Icon is that it doesn’t trade in renders. We only report on buildings when they’re finished. (Renders do pop up in profiles of architects, though, to show projects they have in the pipeline or never completed, but that’s rather different.) There’s not much that can be usefully said about a render because a building can look dramatically different when it is completed – I say one or two things about the magical world of renders here. It’s dangerous to write off a building on the basis of a render, but it’s equally foolish to praise it. You have to make it clear that you could be wrong.
This is especially the case with a bizarre image like the one that popped into my inbox (pictured above, the most widely-circulated view of the Orbit). Renders, being marketing material, come with certain implicit features that we can safely infer – that we are seeing the building in the best possible circumstances, from the best possible angle. Look at the Orbit render: the angle is impossible, as if we are viewing from an adjacent high building, with a curious wide-angle (almost fish-eye) effect. This unlikely aspect is sandwiched between two planes that are unreal to the point of being positively hallucinogenic – an acid-trip-in-Nevada sky and a great apron of what I assume is concrete; across this fair field, folk appear to be gravitating towards the Orbit from all directions, untroubled by queues, ticket booths, chicanes and the sort of honkytonk distractions that I’m sure will fill the Olympic park. It’s a e-number-loaded confection of an image, created solely to provoke a rush of sensation, that indeterminate thrillshock of the unexpected. That glandular burst of sensation has already served its purpose when it curdles into “like” or “dislike” – and the building hasn’t been used for the first time, it has used you for the first time, it has made its first and most important demand on your recently upgraded fishbrain. Coming out of that experience, a direct neural interlace with a marketing computer, with a bad taste in the mouth is only natural.
(I hope to follow up with a second post with some thoughts about the Orbit itself, but I'm out of time.)